Whether you can quote verbatim the Holy Hand Grenade passage from the “Book of Armaments” or you just enjoy great musical theater, get ready: The Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s 2016-17 season is kicking off with “Spamalot,” a resounding explosion of irreverent humor, massive medieval sets, ridiculous dance numbers and catchy, silly songs.
Love it or not, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” has become a permanent fixture in popular culture, inspiring countless re-enactments and recitations of scenes that bring together like-minded fans of the British comedy troupe’s irreverent and absurdist style of comedy. Former Python member Eric Idle penned the book and script for “Spamalot,” which successfully adapted the largely nerd-inhabited cult for a larger Broadway audience, taking three Tony Awards in 2005.
“All your favorite characters are here, from the Black Knight to the French taunters,” director Melissa Rain Anderson said in a recent interview. “The [Python] rhythm and tone are so specific, but here it’s perfectly calibrated for a musical comedy,” she said, expressing a real love for working out the “math” of Python comedy by fine-tuning the pace and feel. Anderson, who also helmed the fantastic production of “The Little Mermaid” last year, has directed productions of “Spamalot” before. She has assembled what she refers to as a “family” of cast and crew, many of whom have worked together on other productions.
“This is an ensemble show, where everyone finds joy in each other’s gifts and makes room for each other to succeed,” Anderson said. “I like to make sure everyone enjoys each other’s company, so onstage we can create the best party anyone would want to go to.” This kind of camaraderie mirrors that of the original Python crew, whose off-the-cuff rapport made their comedy work so well.
Erik Keiser (Sir Robin) has been reciting the “swallows & coconuts” scene by heart. Mike DiSalvo (Lancelot) generally doesn’t take musical roles but made an exception for the chance to perform the Python scenes. Jacob Hoffman (Historian) didn’t grow up with Python, but has plenty of experience in musical comedy and has worked with Anderson on previous productions of “Spamalot.”
The adaptation works in part because there were already plenty of nods to musical theater in the original film, from Prince Herbert’s constantly interrupted attempts at singing to the full-on Broadway of “Knights of the Round Table,” with the line that gave “Spamalot” its name. The show takes the silliness of the film and dresses it up in maxed-out, tongue-in-cheek extravagance. Even the Terry Gilliam animations make an appearance through the magic of dioramas.
“There’s always so much going on across the stage at every moment, and everyone is playing so many characters,” Keiser said. “You really need to see it more than once to pick up on everything because it’s so visually stimulating.” Hoffman chipped in: “This show begs to be done in a certain way, and there’s a real artistry in our group taking what’s already great, being true to that, and use a little license to have fun with it.”
For those who have the script from “Holy Grail” memorized forward and backward, there’s plenty here that’s new. Cast and crew were quick to heap on praise on Madeleine Corliss’ vocal performance as the Lady of the Lake.
“There’s a fun, surprising turn for Lancelot, after the buildup to his rescue of the maiden in the castle, and the show just blows up in an unexpected and hilarious way,” DiSalvo said. (Purists can rest assured that the changes stay true to the Python spirit.) A few bits are pulled in from the troupe’s other works, such as “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.”
The production is one of the Rep’s biggest ever, and they haven’t skimped on the bells and whistles for even the audience, which will be given props. There will also be Python-themed concessions from Loblolly Creamery (coconut, of course) and Stone’s Throw Brewery (elderberry beer).*
“Spamalot” opens Friday, Sept. 2, and runs through Sunday, Oct. 2. Special events include “Pay Your Age Night” on Sept. 4 and “Sign Interpreter Night” Sept. 14. More info is available at therep.org.
*Correction: In a previous version of this article, we stated that The Rep rents costumes to individuals to support its productions. Though the company has historically held costume sales featuring wardrobe pieces and props from past Rep productions, costumes are not available for individual rental.